David Brooks’ New York Times column last week, “The Haimish Line,” was, unsurprisingly, phenomenally popular, one of the most-read articles for a few days straight. It was a well-intentioned, deeply felt plea for mindfulness over money, and was published, appropriately, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, a month during which we are urged to reconsider our recent deeds and their motivations.
Brooks’ disquisition on “haimish” stemmed from a recent safari he went on with his family. He stayed in seven different camps, leading to this key observation: “The more elegant camps felt colder. … I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.”
And nothing says heymish (to use the standard transliteration) like African grassland plains.
While Brooks’ use of the adjective heymish as a noun is enough to let any Yiddish-speaker know that he doesn’t really speak Yiddish — the camps lacked heymishkayt, not heymish — there’s nothing wrong with the sense of what Brooks is saying. His definition of heymish jibes with Uriel Weinreich’s authoritative “Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary” definition: “cozy … familiar, intimate, informal.” (Alas, Weinreich has no entry for safari.)
Heymish –– very literally, “homey” — implies naturalness, lack of airs or pretension; people with whom you feel completely at ease, with whom you can, like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “set a spell, take your shoes off,” or places “where everybody knows your name,” to borrow from another TV show.
In contemporary fervently Orthodox usage, heymish has been extended to mean either a member of the same chasidic group as the speaker (or one very closely related to it) or a fervently Orthodox person whose basic orientation is chasidic, even if he or she doesn’t follow the instructions of any particular rebbe or the customs of any particular group.
As used by chasidism today, it’s an in-group expression that means “people like us.” Had Martin Scorsese made a movie about chasidim instead of good fellas, it might well have been called “Heymishe Layt”: “We always called each other heymishe layt. Like you said to somebody, You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s heymish. He’s one of us.”
Such in-group usage limits the original sense of heymish, which involves an appeal to a shared Jewish culture that transcends ideological borders. It reflects a time when communists and chasidim spoke the same language, hungered for the same sorts of dishes and conducted the same kinds of arguments, albeit about vastly different topics.
Heymishkayt evokes a set of shared attitudes and assumptions that are thought to lie beyond –– or even beneath –– the religious or political differences of people who speak the same mameloshen, or mother tongue, who spent their formative years suckling at the same cultural bosom. It’s an almost intuitive sense of common values, an inescapable sense of common interest.
It goes deeper than the gemütlichkeit of the safaris’ hired help. As Brooks writes: “At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff … before an audience of wildebeests.”
I wonder what the staff was thinking and whether tips were included in the safari fee. When you’re paying a couple of thousand dollars per person to kick a ball around for an audience whose name would be vilde khayes in Yiddish, you might be having a great time — it just isn’t a very heymish one.
You’re living the reverse of Freud’s favorite joke, the one that Heinrich Heine put into the mouth of a heymisher luftmentsh named Hirsch-Hyacinth: “I sat beside Salomon Rothschild and he treated me quite as his equal, quite famillionairely.”
Like Rothschild, Brooks has what many others lack: a choice. The camps that he liked best “were relatively simple, without electricity or running water.” I wonder if my pals in the Catskills who recently spent five days in just such heymishe circumstances would agree.
Brooks seems to prefer “diners and family restaurants” in which people can be found “leaning back, laughing loud, interrupting more and sweeping one another up in a collective euphoria” to fancier places where “the food is better, the atmosphere is more refined, but there is a tighter code about what is permissible.” Yet, you could apply the same criteria to journalism and ask why Brooks hasn’t moved his column to the Daily News.
Despite all this, Brooks’ fundamental message is sound: “Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.” But don’t forget: as long as experience can be bought or not, as long as the experience can hold out for a refund, it isn’t really heymish.
If I’m wrong, just call me Bwana.
The author is an expert on the Yiddish language and former columnist for The Jewish Week. His most recent book is “The Frumkiss Family Business.”